Mum’s Summer Camp Blues

Matthew Schaefer

Portrait of Lou Hoover, Herbert Jr. ( age 15) and Allan (age 11)  Hoover. ca. 1912
Portrait of Lou Hoover, Herbert Jr. ( age 15) and Allan (age 11) Hoover. ca. 1912

Mothers know all too well the familiar refrain after sending their son to summer camp: ‘You never call. You never write.’  Lou Henry Hoover was no exception.  When her seventeen year-old son Allan went off to spend August at Cody, Wyoming’s Valley Ranch Camp and Yellowstone National Park, Lou did not hear from him for nearly one month.

Startling as this may seem to our modern sensibilities, accustomed to nearly constant contact via phone, Facebook or Snapchat, Lou Hoover was initially serene, sending letters to Allan without hope of response.  Her letters of August 1st, 8th, and 11th were conversational, bringing her son up to date on her own travels, family affairs, and Grandpa Henry’s fishing exploits on the Klamath River.  By the middle of the month, Lou turned to telegrams to reach Allan.  After sending eight telegrams in eight days, trying to nail down logistics for Allan’s return to Washington, enrollment in Stanford’s fall session, and housing in Palo Alto, Lou stopped.  She knew her son would have to write at some point.

Eventually, Allan wrote.   His August 29th letter opens: “I really feel guilty as a fool for not having written before, and I admit you got a pretty raw deal.”  He briefly catches ‘Mum’ up on recent activities-arriving in Washington, visiting family friends, riding in an aeroplane, before signing off, promising to write a long letter tomorrow.  True to his word, Allan wrote a 23-page letter the next day.  In this letter, he described his summer in fine detail: train ride to Cody, Buffalo Bill shows and rodeos, camp life, fishing, sights in Yellowstone, and the plane ride.  He closed with this post script: “I’m sure glad that you are not like Jack’s mother.  She kept calling folks to look out for him and send him warm shoes. He had a terrible time being a mama’s boy.”

Lou was thrilled to get such an informative letter from Allan, writing: ‘Your long letter and photos kept me very happy from 10 PM to midnight.  I can’t remember when I ever had a 23-page letter before….  It may surprise you to learn that your Daddy used to write me very long letters, but 15-17 pages was his limit.”  After weighing the benefits of one long letter v. 23 shorter letters, Lou concluded that they’d have equal merit–as long as they described a happy camper.

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